The path Jeremy McQueen has chosen is a joyful one, creating original ballets that address and celebrate diversity, while also making them accessible to wider audiences through the New York-based Black Iris Project, a ballet collaborative that he founded in 2016.
Last summer he was in Martha's Vineyard, taking part in an artistic residency and thinking about his next ballet, when his thoughts returned to an unfinished challenge. Years ago McQueen's mentor suggested that he create a ballet for Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead, Op. 29, but at the time he just didn't have a storyline that connected.
The composition was inspired by Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin's painting, which itself has been interpreted as depicting the souls of Greek mythology being carried to the underworld. "The music is orchestral, dark, very challenging to count musically," says McQueen.
But sitting on that beach in Martha's Vineyard, the connections started to form. Having grown up in southern California, he had always been captivated by water, and his thoughts turned to the people he's met over the years: There were the teachers who rallied after Hurricane Katrina, and who proved themselves to be resilient both in the rebuilding process and against the unjustness of uneven aid. He was there in New York during Hurricane Sandy. And he thought about his trip to Puerto Rico a few years ago, with its natural beauty, and how he felt when he learned about the devastation after Hurricane Maria.
In doing research for his new ballet, The Storm, more than a few folks looked at McQueen with incredulity when he asked them, "What did you gain from the storm?" It was easier to answer his other question, "What did you lose?" He ended up creating a public art mural with those answers and his theme gained focus.
"When the storms of life are raging, how do you weather the storm? That’s what gave me the overall artistic theme. How do we prevail when things start to weigh us down," says McQueen, who says he turns to his faith, his spirituality, to gospel music and even to contemporary film and music.
"There's this quote from Dory from Finding Nemo: 'Just Keep Swimming,'" says McQueen. "I remember that from years and years ago. I'm still swimming. Despite the challenges, the rising tides, the rip currents, you just have to keep swimming."
The Storm, which weaves a narrative from those hurricanes, makes its world premiere this weekend in Houston. But it's much more than meteorology and mythology: The choreographer has made another very interesting connection to the Middle Passage and how the Atlantic slave traders' ships followed the same trajectory as tropical storms.
He was inspired in part by Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco's seventh album, Drogas Wave, which explores the idea that Africans thrown overboard during their transatlantic passage found new life at the bottom of the ocean. It's a revisionist history full of hope and promise, that those living underwater took on the mission of sinking future ships.
McQueen's Black Iris Project will be working with six Houston-based artists for this premiere. "The six local artists are the water; they are the ancestors from the Middle Passage and also the essence of the water — life giving and also life taking.
"They’re not dead, they’re alive underwater and they’re happy. It's an interesting narrative. It was not tragic; we created our own world where we’re happy, similar to Wakanda," says McQueen, who points to the quote from Black Panther.
"My spirituality, I feel that I’ve always been guided and protected by my ancestors. All of the things I’ve gone through in my life, they haven’t all been pleasant, but I feel that I’ve always been surrounded by love and support," says McQueen. "No matter what we go through there are people supporting us that we can’t even see.
"Even when we go through really dark moments in our lives, there are people supporting us."
Also on the program is Black Iris Project's signature work, Black Iris, inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe's painting, and A Mother's Rite, set to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
"A Mother's Rite is another very challenging score to say the least but it follows the trajectory of one mother’s journey of various stages of grief after police brutality," says McQueen, who labels it "basically a 40 minute solo" that follows what it must feel like to be thrust in the spotlight after a horrific incident.
"Miller makes these performances free and that’s completely in alignment of who we are and our mission, to make these programs free or affordable for [people of color] to see their lives told through ballet, which is generally never done."
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Jeremy McQueen's Black Iris Project is scheduled for August 16 at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information, visit milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.
To learn more about the Black Iris Project, visit blackirisproject.org.
Then come back Tuesday night and catch that Killmonger quote for yourself.
Movies at Miller: Black Panther is scheduled for August 20 at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information, visit milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.